Thursday, April 5, 2012

Misperceptions of the South rooted in education

Kristen Rawls of AlterNet published an insightful note at yesterday about misperceptions of Southerners. Our region has gotten a bit of media coverage recently, Rawls notes, because of Mitt Romney's inability to win a Southern contest against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

What does that say about us, if anything discernible?

“Doubts on Romney’s Conservatism Help Santorum in the South,” reads the ABC News headline from March 13. The headline would have you believe that Rick Santorum trounced Mitt Romney in the Alabama and Mississippi GOP primaries. It obscures the fact that Santorum beat Romney by just 44-39 percent in Alabama and 42-39 percent in Mississippi. In other words, nearly half of GOP primary voters in these states voted for Romney.

The headline not only obscures the kinds of political divisions that divide the rural and more liberal urban parts of the South; it also feeds into the idea that Southern conservatives vote primarily on “family values” issues, and takes it on good faith that Romney – who has moved awfully far to the Right during primary season – is somehow the more civilized, sane, humane and/or liberal of the two.

In January, CNN contributor John Avlon wrote about the ugly stereotypes about South Carolina that he saw as that state’s primaries kicked off: “You know, the characterization of South Carolina as a swamp of sleazy politics and brutal attack ads, a Bible belt bastion of rednecks and racism, a state defined by Bob Jones University. Sometimes these stereotypes are floated in political conversations as evidence of how ‘real’ the state is in determining the true feelings of the conservative base.”

These stereotypes are nothing new. In fact, they often date back to the Civil War. They tend to denigrate the Southern poor, under-educated and rural in ways that bear striking resemblance to Republican rhetoric that demonizes the poor in general. But every election season, those of us who have spent most of our lives in the South are reminded of the devastating misconceptions that many other Americans have about us. The Right romanticizes us as the “real America” while the Left treats us a punchline. Polling organizations like Public Policy Polling design studies that target Southern states and reinforce the national sense that we are backward and dim-witted. Here are just a few of the ways in which popular political narratives distort the contemporary realities of Southern life in historical context.

First, Rawls points out with data from Ferrel Guillory, journalism and mass communication professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that we are not "predominantly rural."

Guillory told her, “There is this common wisdom out there that the South remains a rural place dominated by working-class people with no education past high school.”

Second, she observes, "We are disproportionately poor, but this does not mean we are lazy."

But more important, the tendency to dismiss Southerners as lazy is surely linked to the persistence of inequality and poverty in the region. As Guillory notes, “We have educational gaps that have not been fully closed. We have achievement gaps between young white people and young black people. We have gaps everywhere in the United States, but some of the Southern rates are a little deeper.”

Plus, he notes, we “have some of the highest dropout rates – and so we’re still dealing in many ways with the legacies of our history.” In other words, slavery and then Jim Crow created class distinctions between white and black Southerners that have proven very hard to eradicate. What’s more, the early suppression of the labor movement often meant the disenfranchisement of working-class whites and blacks. Ultimately, the region never fully recovered from its post-Civil War economic collapse.

Southern states usually relied on working-class jobs like textiles, cotton and tobacco. But rising labor costs in the South in the modern era meant that tobacco companies and other sources of employment moved production to other countries for cheaper labor. Guillory says that these new developments have “wiped a lot of that [previous industry] off the face of the state” in North Carolina.

Plus, he points out, older citizens throughout the South have often had trouble adapting to modernization: “They haven’t been trained. They don’t have the education that allows them to adapt… Some [rural towns] haven’t modernized their infrastructure.” So, despite modernization and industrialization, we are still poor states.

Guillory says, “Southerners themselves too often buy into the ‘laziness’ narrative.” But it has very little basis in truth: “Southerners work hard. You know, people worked in fields, in small factories in the heat. Southern states used to attract industry by advertising relatively inexpensive labor but people who would work hard and work independently.”

This linked to a long and troubled history of violent labor suppression in the South that has resulted in some of the worst working conditions in the country – and contributed to the region’s never-ending poverty. Indeed, Southern states often attracted industry based on the fact that they had crushed working-class activism in ways that ultimately produced a pliable – and fearful – labor force. During the 1940s, Jacob Remes, founding member of the Southern Labor Studies Association and assistant professor of public affairs at the State University of New York Empire State College, tells AlterNet, interracial civil rights activism sometimes combined the causes of racial justice and labor rights. But labor organizing was violently put down. People were killed, and both race and Red panic were used as wedges to divide white and black workers. Over time, says Remes, national labor rights activists sometimes gave up on organizing the South, and Southern workers were cowed into poor working conditions and low wages. Just as corporations have moved jobs overseas for cheaper labor, northern industry first came to the South because labor costs had risen in the north, and corporations – like the textile industry that ultimately landed in North Carolina – needed a cheaper labor force.

The entrenchment of Southern poverty may not have happened by design, but capital and history led to the circumstances that made it possible. Though the region was dominated for a time by industrial labor with high wages compared to what had come before, these jobs are no more.

Guillory is a sharp cookie, and he gets straight to the heart of some theses I've held for a long time.

It's on the subject of education that Rawls, and Guillory, unearth the deepest-held misperceptions of Southerners. Rawls declares, "We are not stupid."

The white-trash trope is part and parcel of the idea that we in the South are stupid. Part of this, Guillory notes, is related to the aristocratic education systems that pepper Southern history. He notes that education “wasn’t seen as everybody’s right – it was seen as what rich people do, and what the lucky and the elite do.” Not only this, he says, but “debates over evolution or…liquor or other cultural things” often perpetuated the “sense that Southerners were acting on little or no knowledge of science.”

My only caution to Guillory is the assumption that this view of education and rights to it are matters of the past; they are not. Just as our region's aristocrats restricted access to education two centuries ago, so does our evolving aristocracy restrict access to it today, through institutionalized inequalities determined by race, geography and socio-economic status.

It's no coincidence that the majority of South Carolina Education Lottery tickets are purchased along I-95 -- the Corridor of Shame -- but the majority of college scholarships funded by the lottery are received by graduates in the Upstate.

Even now, evolution remains a hot-button issue that seems to divide North and South. Indeed, evolution remains as controversial today as it was during the Scopes trial in 1920s Tennessee. And though Guillory says that the South has largely converged with the rest of the country when it comes to politics, he explains that it nevertheless “continues to differ with the nation on social issues and cultural attitudes. It’s not that much different, but on a whole series of things having to do with the classic construct of ‘God, guns and gays,’ the South tends to be somewhat more conservative, somewhat more churchgoing, somewhat more accepting of the freedom to own and use firearms and somewhat less accepting of same-sex unions. So, it’s on these cultural issues that there remains some distinctiveness.”

But these beliefs did not develop in a vacuum, and often have more to do with lack of adequate education than innate stupidity. Indeed, as Jane Mayer’s New Yorker exposé on Koch brothers affiliate Art Pope shows, national GOP coffers are pouring into the South to advance causes like school privatization and vouchers under the guise of freedom, equality and “school choice.” Luther says this very same anti-intellectual ideology is also being fueled by right-wing money pouring into Texas.

Often, the moneyed interests that shape Southern conservatism come from other parts of the country – like the Kansas-based Koch brothers – and exploit populations already underserved by their historically underfunded systems of public education. And conservative billionaires bent on privatizing education and dismantling the public system pour lots of money into campaigns meant to reinforce propaganda about untrustworthy “government schools.” These campaigns often result in statewide support for vouchers that further defund the public system. So, when under-educated voters base decisions on issues like “personal morality” rather than perceived economic self-interest, we should probably start talking about the powerful outside interests that are funding this ideology.

Like Howard Rich, the New Yorker who was named by lawmakers during the House debate on private-school vouchers last week?

And of course underfunded education remains a problem in Texas and throughout the South. Just this week, Southern Education Desk explained that Alabama has historically kept education funding low by using race – once again – as a wedge to keep white working-class people from supporting education funding. White working-class farmers had always opposed tax increases in Alabama, but the desegregation of schools left white Alabamans less committed than ever to funding public schools. Unsurprisingly, though, there has always been something in it for the moneyed classes, not the working class – that is, measures to defund education always “played into the hands of large landowners who wanted cheap, non-unified labor, more land, and very low property tax rates, which they have enjoyed ever since the state Constitution centralized power in Montgomery to the state’s planting class. One result of all this is that, across Alabama, there are significant hurdles to raising property taxes to increase local school funding, including mandatory referenda in a very anti-tax state.”

Continuing her list of misperceptions about the South, Rawls finds a couple more than sound incompatible with the national view of us. One is that "We have progressive activists and large liberal contingencies in our states."

The common perception that Southerners are stupid obscures the generations of progressive activists who have fought, sacrificed and sometimes died to make this a more hospitable and inclusive place. But progressive media outlets too often imply that we are an undifferentiated mass of ignorant bigots. In a 2004 Slate article, for example, novelist Jane Smiley wrote that “ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states.” Her conclusion? Progressives should just write them all off as potential political allies and marginalize these states as much as possible.

North Carolina politics are often reduced to the “Jesse Helms legacy.” Helms, of course, was the segregationist and Cold Warrior who served as a North Carolina senator between the early 1970s and into the 21st century. But as Guillory says, this is not the whole story of North Carolina politics. Living in urban North Carolina, one gets the impression that the civil rights movement is far from over – and that current political fights are widely understood in the context of a longstanding commitment to progressive activism in the South.

The fifth and final truth Rawls offers to counter misperceptions is "We are not a monolith."

Talk does not equal progress, and despite advancements in our rhetoric, white supremacist attitudes remain. Ferrel Guillory thinks that, despite all the talk, there is still some denial going on. He notes that it’s difficult to measure the severity of racism in the South, because people have found ways of justifying their own racism without admitting to it. For example, you will rarely hear anyone admit to being a proud bigot, but white people sometimes speak in hushed tones to advise fellow white people not to move to a “dangerous” – that is, usually majority black – neighborhood. Likewise, Guillory says that voters may explain a vote to pollsters by saying, “‘I picked him because he’s more conservative” rather than “because he’s white.” And we sometimes defend ourselves with the claim that we are more integrated than the North (which we are). But hastening to point this out sometimes obscures the changes we still need to make.

Guillory says, “I’m not trying to say that we don’t have real human issues to deal with, and we’ve got a polarized political system much as the rest of the country does. And part of the polarization has been that Southern white people – particularly working-class white people – have gotten increasingly mired – stuck — in their cultural conservatism and the white Southern portion of the Republican party has helped pull the Republican party nationally to the right. So, it’s a complex picture, but it’s important not to say the whole South is ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ or Mayberry.”
We in the South are not a monolithic population, not by any stretch of the imagination. We disagree among each other on social issues, as well as matters of faith. Our populations are facing some of the most severe reproductive rights restrictions and social services cuts in the nation. If our marginalized groups “count” to progressive Americans outside the region, it shouldn’t be controversial to point out that we could use solidarity, not derision, when we fight regressive Republican legislation. There is a political shift underway in the South.

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